The Truth-O-Meter Says:

On changing the rules for filibusters on presidential nominees

Barack Obama on Thursday, November 21st, 2013 in speeches

Barack Obama among flip-floppers on Senate's 'nuclear option'

"What (the American people) don't expect is for one party, be it Republican or Democrat, to change the rules in the middle of the game so they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet."

Then-Sen. Barack Obama, remarks on Senate floor, April 13, 2005   

"I support the step a majority of senators today took to change the way that Washington is doing business — more specifically, the way the Senate does business.  What a majority of senators determined … is that they would restore the longstanding tradition of considering judicial and public service nominations on a more routine basis."  

President Obama, remarks on Senate efforts to confirm presidential nominees, Nov. 21, 2013


After years of threats and retreats by both parties, the Democratic Senate majority on Nov. 21, 2013, enacted a controversial rule change called the "nuclear option."

The change eliminated the filibuster — a blockage of floor action, typically by the chamber’s minority party — for executive branch nominations as well as judicial appointments short of the Supreme Court. Under the new rule, the Senate only needs a 51-vote majority instead of a 60-vote supermajority to end a filibuster and move to a final vote on a nomination.

The question of whether to change the rule has long divided the chamber’s majority and its minority. In fact, supporting or opposing the "nuclear option" has been much more closely linked to a senator’s position in the majority or the minority than whether they’re a Republican or Democrat.

This means that both sides in this recent faceoff made different arguments than they had in previous iterations of the battle.

Following the decision, President Barack Obama gave a press conference lauding and supporting the change, which was implemented with the support of all but a few Democrats and no Republicans. Yet the president had strongly condemned the maneuver during his own time as a senator. Time to take out the Flip-O-Meter!

PolitiFact’s Flip-O-Meter rates politicians' consistency on particular topics from No Flip to Full Flop. The meter is not intended to pass judgment on whether the change is justified or not. It simply looks at whether they did, indeed, change their stated position.

We’ll take a look back to 2005, when the partisan lineup was substantially different. President George W. Bush had recently won a second term, while his fellow Republicans had a majority in the Senate. (The House was also controlled by Republicans, but the House isn’t directly involved in the filibuster fight.)

In the Senate, the Democratic minority had filibustered a number of Bush’s judicial appointments, displeasing Republicans, who seriously considered implementing the nuclear option that would allow them to confirm judges with a simple majority.

The effort drew the outrage of Democrats, among them then-Sen. Barack Obama, who had won his seat the previous November:

"What (the American people) don't expect is for one party, be it Republican or Democrat, to change the rules in the middle of the game so they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet," Obama said on the Senate floor in April 2013. He added, "If the right of free and open debate is taken away from the minority party and the millions of Americans who ask us to be their voice, I fear the partisan atmosphere in Washington will be poisoned to the point where no one will be able to agree on anything."

The threat to go nuclear was eventually rescinded when a bipartisan group of senators – the "Gang of 14" – pledged to block the effort. Seven Democrats agreed to no longer support their party’s filibusters on judicial nominees, while seven Republicans promised not to vote with their colleagues to invoke the nuclear option.

Fast-forward to 2013. Now, Democrats held the White House and a Senate majority. The Republican minority had been stalling nominations and appointments by Obama, including filibustering the nomination of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense. Senate Democrats decided to go nuclear after the Senate GOP made clear that they had no intention of allowing three vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to be filled.

At that point, Senate Democrats took the opposite view they had taken in 2005. Led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., they successfully invoked the nuclear option in a near-party-line vote, 52-48.

Obama flipped his position as well. In a statement supporting the rule change, he explained that it would bring the "longstanding tradition of considering judicial and public service nominations on a more routine basis."  

"A deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to refight the result of an election is not normal, and for the sake of future generations, we can't let it become normal, " Obama said.

Our ruling

In 2005, Obama strongly condemned a proposed Senate rule change by the Republican majority. This week, with a Democratic majority, he supported it. We rate this a Full Flop.

About this statement:

Published: Friday, November 22nd, 2013 at 6:34 p.m.

Subjects: Congressional Rules


Sen. Barack Obama, Remarks on Senate floor, April 13, 2005   

President Obama, Remarks on Senate Efforts to Confirm Presidential Nominees, Nov. 21, 2013

NPR, "A Quick History Of Filibuster Flip-Flops," Nov. 21, 2013

New York Times, "Senators Who Averted Showdown Face New Test in Court Fight," July 14, 2005

Written by: Lilly Maier
Researched by: Becky Bowers, Lilly Maier
Edited by: Louis Jacobson

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